Better mask quality, minimizing contacts key to keeping Omicron at bay: epidemiologists

Manitobans need to rethink the way they protect themselves and others against the omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19, epidemiologists say.

Early data suggest cases from variant can double in as little as 1.5 days

An employee at Stevens Home Medical Supplies in Winnipeg demonstrates N95 face mask. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

With the incredibly infectious Omicron variant now in the province, epidemiologists say Manitobans need to rethink the way they protect themselves and others, cautioning that old methods won't hold up. 

Scientists continue to learn more about how much more infectious Omicron is compared to earlier variants, and whether it causes more severe illness.

Some early data out of Hong Kong suggests Omicron multiplies 70 times faster than either the Delta variant or the original SARS-CoV-2 virus, while global numbers show it may be have a doubling time between 1.5 to 3 days. 

In light of this, people should take extra precautions by increasing the quality of masks they wear and the time they spend wearing them, and minimize their exposure to others, says Cynthia Carr, founder of EPI Research Inc. in Winnipeg.

"We're still trying to understand in terms of the severity of illness, but there's certainly still a change in the sense of resource need, and testing, and being cautious about not being in large groups until we find out more about the impact," she said. 

Mask use changes

Nazeem Muhajarine, a professor of epidemiology and public health at the University of Saskatchewan, advises people to take rapid tests before going into a workplace, and wear a mask that fits closely to the face, covering the nose and mouth.

Muhajarine wears a Kn95 mask indoors, and puts it on outside when he's talking to someone. Cloth masks should have three layers, he said.

"A good test is to hold your finger 15 centimetres or so … in front and blow through the mask, and if you can feel the air, then the mask is not good," he said.

Another test would be to try to blow out a candle from the same distance.

People should be wearing a mask while working indoors, even if they can physically distance, Carr said.

"I would not encourage anyone in a workplace setting, even in an office where you can close the door, to take a mask off, because you don't know about your circulation system within your workplace and how the air exchange is going," she said.

"I don't want to scare people, but we're continuing to learn about this virus in terms of it's airborne ability."

If people don't have an N95 respirator style mask, they can layer a surgical mask with a tight fitting cloth mask over top, Carr said. 

Staying home, using rapid tests

Whenever possible, people should work from home, and says people who are at higher risk of infection, such as those who are unvaccinated, should be prioritized for rapid testing, Carr said. 

People must adapt to this more transmissible virus, Muhajarine said.

"I feel like we really don't have a choice, if we want to be safe, and if we care about not giving the virus to someone who may actually handle it very badly," he said.

"And we never know who is that person, if that is someone we know really well, or close to, even if we don't. We don't want to be the person that causes death, hospitalization, a lot of suffering." 

While she encourages people to purchase high-quality masks like an N95, when choosing the type of mask to wear, Carr advises people to go with something that they feel comfortable in and that they will wear consistently.

"There's no point buying something or getting something that's extremely uncomfortable that you won't wear. Get something that works best for you."

Carr understands that people may be feeling pandemic fatigue, and that can lead some people to grow indifferent — and others to panic. She says people must resist both those urges.

"We've got vaccines, we've got better treatment, and hopefully this is mutating toward being less clinically impactful and more toward the common cold."

With files from Alana Cole and Cameron MacLean